Good friends moved to Malta recently as refugees from supposedly idyllic southern France, where they had been reminded once too often that bureaucracy is a French word. Malta seemed an ideal address - still Mediterranean, undeniably beautiful, richly historic, with recognizably English laws and an amicable tax scheme for expatriates - but they longed to share their discovery and, more important, have their prescience applauded by others. Come and visit, they entreated.
Malta promised a respite from the depths of a Canadian winter and a global recession, so we arranged a week's stay. But then we began to worry about Benjamin Franklin's adage about fish and guests. With fish, the solution is easy: When it begins to smell, throw it out. Odoriferous guests - especially old friends - are harder to dislodge, as my husband and I have learned to our cost over the years. We still remember his ancient school friend who had a penchant for smoking cigarillos at breakfast and flicked ash into the butter dish, and my relative who arrived with a steamer trunk, no departure date and a cluster of moths circling her wallet every time she was shamed into paying her share of a restaurant meal.
That's why we pride ourselves on being good guests and moving on before our best-before date expires.
Even if you are with your nearest and dearest, after three days you're probably into conversational retreads: The relatives have all been analyzed, mutual friends eviscerated, recently read books derided and films, plays and concerts exhaustively panned. So get out, while the glow is golden - and before politesse is abandoned and you reveal your dark side (or worse, tell them about theirs). Such is the human condition.
When visiting these same friends in France, we disappeared every morning in our rented car, returning late in the day with wine, cheeses, tales of adventure, enthusiastic memories of a decent lunch and an invitation to dinner at their favourite restaurant. And then we'd be off - unburdened, independent, guiltless and eager to be asked back.
But how could we maintain our "good" guest regimen on a tiny island in the middle of the Mediterranean? Malta, an archipelago 90 kilometres south of Sicily, about 300 kilometres from North Africa, consists of three main islands - Malta, Gozo and minuscule Comino (an offshore underwater paradise for scuba divers and snorkellers) - with a total land area of just over 300 square kilometres, about half the area of Toronto.
And to complicate matters, our friends, kindly souls, insisted that they would chauffeur us around, as there were still plenty of sites that they had yet to explore. To demonstrate the seriousness of their stricture against rented cars, they picked us up at the airport.
The ideal times to visit Malta are spring and fall - perfect for any number of sports (golf is good) and particularly for swimming and snorkelling. But in the winter, Malta can be rainy and cool. The temperature didn't deter us, as we are not sun worshippers and can think of nothing worse than a Caribbean solar broil on the beach. We quickly learned to carry a pocket-sized umbrella and to wear jackets or heavy sweaters while walking and exploring. (Anyway, a Maltese high summer would be far too hot, 35 to 40 C, and, especially with a wind blowing, very humid.)
Hiking, rock climbing and scuba diving aside, the real attraction of the place is the culture and history - or rather cultures and histories. Malta's strategic location has made it a crossroads of civilizations, from the Phoenicians, through the Romans, Carthaginians and Sicilians, to the French and British and, of course, the crusading Knights of the late Middle Ages. All of them, sojourners, invaders and settlers, have left their mark - in the distinctive Maltese language (a combination of Sicilian and Arabic with lots of local idiom), the cuisine, the rugged temperament, the rare beauty of the people and, more materially, with structures. Malta has ruins stretching back at least 5,500 years - religious temples erected out of limestone and predating Stonehenge by a few thousand years.
The dominant religion now, accounting for 98 per cent of the population of 400,000, is Roman Catholicism. The power of the church is said to emanate from 60 AD, when St. Paul was shipwrecked and took refuge on the island. Every major town and village, and most of the minor ones, is crowned by a massive local church. There is a beautifully preserved Inquisitor's Palace in Valletta, the capital city of Malta, where strangely enough, the word torture never appears in any of the explanatory signage provided by the Catholic Church.
Valletta, surely one of the most picturesque cities in Europe, has broad avenues, attractive squares and rich palaces tucked behind stout ramparts. It is home to the Baroque St. John's Co-Cathedral (1673-77), which celebrates the brotherhood of the Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem and has several chapels or langues dedicated to specific knights and nationalities. One of the chapels contains two paintings by Caravaggio, including a dramatic depiction of the beheading of St. John the Baptist.
Fortifications and ramparts are as plentiful as churches, for Malta, an island placed between east and west, north and south, has been invaded or besieged several times in its long history. The physical evidence of these sieges is everywhere, in war museums, fortress walls and subterranean shelters and command centres.
Modern Malta, a republic that is a member of both the Commonwealth and the European Union, is more urban than rural. So after tromping around Valletta and making a day trip to Mdina, the old capital of Malta - a medieval town often called the Silent City because of its maze of interconnected alleyways and corridors - we needed a break and decided to take the ferry to Gozo, the second largest island in the Malta archipelago. Gozo is countryside: fruitful but rugged with a stunningly beautiful seacoast. Legend has it that Gozo is the Isle of Calypso, the nymph who detained Odysseus in Homer's Odyssey. He renounced the charms of the place after seven years, but a modern visitor could well have more trouble doing so. Even though there has been talk of building a link to the main island, most residents seem relieved that the plan has been shelved because of costs.
And so, having spent a night away, we kept, more or less, to our "fish rule" and returned to our friends recharged with fresh stories, an abundant supply of Maltese wines and an invitation to dine at an upscale restaurant. Before we climbed into the back seat of the taxi that was taking us to the airport, we gave our friends a copy of Margaret Atwood's Payback: Debt as Metaphor and the Shadow Side of Wealth, by way of a promissory note. And on the flight home, we decided to renovate our guest room. You never know when friends will want to visit.
Pack your bags
Getting there Flights
Air Canada flies regularly to European hub cities such as London, Frankfurt or Rome. Air Malta flies from major European hubs, including both Gatwick and Heathrow airports in London.
Rental cars are cheap and you won't be spending much on gasoline as there aren't great distances to travel. Many visitors forego cars for the whole of their visit and rent only on a daily basis. This makes particular sense if you are staying in Valletta or Sliema as parking is, to be charitable, a challenge. In any case local buses are cheap, plentiful and fun (when was the last time you rode on a 1968 Leyland?) And and taxis are plentiful although fares should be negotiated beforehand.
A car is a good idea if you are making a day trip or longer to Gozo (ferry round trip Euros 15.70 for car and driver and Euros 4.65 for each additional passenger). It's not that Gozo is huge, but its smaller population means that services are not so frequent and some of the sites are, at least by Maltese standards, remote.
Where to stay
If you are short on friends in Malta, or you have a disagreement with your hosts, hotels, from bargain to flat-out luxury, are plentiful.
The Palace, High Street, Sliema; 356 (21) 333 444; www.thepalacemalta.com . From $299.
Where to eat
Peppino's, 31 St. Georges Road, St. Julians; 356 (21) 373 200. A favourite with the locals, it has delicious fish (try the tuna carpaccio) and a splendid selection of Maltese wines.
Xara Palace Hotel, Misrah il-Kunsill, Mdina; 356 (21) 450 560. Has a sensational dining room with a panoramic view (ask John McCain - he spent a night here after losing the American presidential election).
What to See
The Grand Harbour, the ramparts, fortresses and waterfront, Valletta (including St. John's Co-Cathedral and Caravaggio's masterpiece, the Beheading of St. John, in the Oratory).
The hilltop Citadel, Victoria (Rabat), settled since Neolithic times. Xaghra's Ggantija Temples, which date back to at least 3,500 BCE.
The famed Azure Window in the Inland Sea.
The Ten Rules of Being a Good Guest; Or, how to be asked back for a second visit
1. Practise "The Fish Rule" religiously: Never stay more than three nights.
2. Do not expect to be picked up at, or delivered to, the airport or the train station.
3. Plan your own itinerary and clear out during the day, especially if your hosts work from home.
4. Find local transportation either by renting a car or buying a bus or rail pass.
5. Come back every evening with flowers or an edible or quaffable contribution for dinner.
6. Discover something new or interesting to impart to your hosts about the place where they live.
7. Never bring back "friends" to your host's place for drinks, dinner - or anything else.
8. Take your hosts out for dinner near the end of your stay.
9. Make sure you take all your belongings when you depart.
10. Your mother was right: Send a thank-you note.